creating community: donuts make a difference (1995)
I wrote this essay while an undergraduate at Gordon College, nearly fifteen years ago. I came across it recently while cleaning out our storage unit and was struck by the message it still conveys. It offered me a reminder of why and how women form communities. It's not about changing the world or being recognized as significant. It's about fostering significant connections across our ordinary (even invisible) lives. The world is changed by the changes in our lives and the bonds we form.
I used to think that you made a difference in the world by busy schedules, fancy clothes, and mandatory attendance. Now, I am hardly so illusioned. You make a difference in your own life, with the cooperation of a few other lives. Start by working out of your own observations, needs and dreams.
Through the Christian College Consortium there is a program called the Women's Studies May term at the Oregon Extension. It is a small program designed to teach women and men about the experiences of women, internationally, as they develop from girls into women. There is focus on the psychological, social, and spiritual areas of their development. I thoroughly enjoyed participating in this program. There, I first imagined a women's group for Gordon College.
In some ways the May Term itself was a women's group. We gathered daily to discuss the experiences and challenges distinctly women's. This included sharing our own experiences. The discussions were so personal that we rapidly developed close relationships within the seminars. There were common challenges for confidence, self esteem, and strength. In these areas we encouraged each other. I recognized that a group that could gather women together for encouragement and support was needed on our campus. The dynamics of the school were such that despite the prevalence of women, men were still the priority. Women needed to realize their shared private experiences and the public value of those experiences.
I returned to campus with a plan. I had a few names offered to me by the professors at the May Term. They knew of Gordon women interested in women's concerns through another program that they taught. My first opportunity to talk with one of these women came at a chapel service early in the fall semester.
Her name was Karla. I recognized her by her long red hair, which was the only thing I knew about her at the time. She sat in the pew in front of me. As the hymn ended I slipped her a note telling my name, how I knew hers, and what I hoped to do on campus. Then I waited. A prayer. Another hymn. Finally she passed the note back. We would meet later that week with her roommate Cristina and form some plans. It was a slow beginning.
The next meeting gave me hope. These two women were excited for the idea of a women's group. I thought that I would at least have them if no one else ever had an interest. We kept the group kind of quiet, using a method of invitation to gather the women, rather than advertising. Each of us had a friend who had a friend who wanted something like this in her life.
After a month of meetings we learned who would stay with the group and who had other obligations. Sitting in the warm one room apartment that Karla and Cristina shared, I was impressed to see the women this idea attracted, these women that forged intimacy out of an idea.
There is Karla over by the stove. Her red hair is loose on her shoulders and down her back. She moves slowly, talks slowly in a husky voice that invites you to listen. She stays in the background in her tiny apartment. We all get our food before she sits down with us. She is a healer. We can ask her all our questions about women's health, and herbal remedies and aromatherapy. Quiet doesn't mean passive when you talk to Karla. She is a car mechanic besides her more earthy expertise. Her thin body is powerful, and the mind behind those dark eyes is always considering a new puzzle. Karla can laugh too. Usually at traditional, narrow minded men who haven't figures out what to think of unstoppable women like her. I think that is true of all the women gathered here as I turn my gaze along them.
Cristina sits on the bed against the wall. her hair is dark and wavy. It's drawn back in a barrette. She has a passionate voice, intelligent face, and creative hands. She makes beautiful paintings of women, their gorgeous bodies and their deeper strength. Cristina is full feeling, full expressing. She can cry and curse and laugh as she is moved. She doesn't hide from us who she is or how she feels.
Angelique is to my left. We met at the May Term, and through that have adopted each other. We never would have become so close but through the context of women's studies. It showed us where our lives overlap. I wonder who else in this room will experience that. Angelique is tall and blond. She is big for a woman and I like that. She cries freely and is learning to rage freely. Feelings are important to me, so I enjoy being with women who are learning to express them like Angie.
Then, there is Sandra. She sits across the room from my place on the floor. She is in a chair, in the corner, guarded on two sides by the walls. Of the women gathered here, Sandra is the most intimidating and most intriguing to me. She is almost like a man, the tough way that she watches all that goes on around her without engaging in it. I think she feels uncomfortable here with us, as if she may feel uncomfortable with all these women. As we are talking I try to focus on our conversation, but my interest is drawn back to her.
Tonight the topic is women and God, as it often is for our gathering is always interested in God's relationships with women. Men's relationships with women have warped our sense of who God is and what God wants for women. the conversation take on its own life and I am talking about nature and cycles and other places that i see God. I'm telling them that I think in circles, that I don't even draw boxes anymore. The look confused. Cristina begins to say that she doesn't understand, she doesn't think that way, when Sandra suddenly speaks up. She thinks the way I do. She understands my use of visuals and symbols, like the circle and cycles. We're looking at each other. We're together, for once, and I'm not intimidated by her. I feel like I'm beginning to be someone to her. Maybe she's beginning to trust me.
That friendship continued outside of our weekly meetings. I would stumble into the last pew of the chapel. A bag of two donuts in my left hand, and a paper cup of hot herbal tea in my right. Sandra would arrive a little bit later. We'd sit close. Our second hand patched up blue jeans and ripped up Chucks beside each other along the pew. Our backpacks together on the floor. I'd hand her a donut and we'd settle in for a little while, paying close attention to the words the preacher used for women, especially if the preacher wasn't a woman. Inevitably one of us would start twitching. "Want to leave?" Out the door we went, charging across the quad, to a quiet place in the sun, our words racing out of our mouths faster than our thoughts could censor them.
That's how it was with the group. Friendships began in moments of connections over shared experiences, observations, or feelings and they were maintained in spontaneous dinner conversations or over drinks at a local restaurant. We came to know each others on the basis of our shared womanhood. This included lots of issues. We were interested in the femininity of divinity. We wanted strong women leaders and mentors. We had a lot of anger that was transformed into energy once it was valued in the area of our shared experiences. We were angry at people and attitudes that had hushed us, at ourselves for being pacified, and at the church for deceiving us. We wanted to learn about the societal concerns of sexual assault, body image, and gendered language, things that were influencing our lives whether we approved or not. It didn't rest there. We wanted to teach our community what we had learned in our small gatherings.
We did it. Out of our messy crew of sweaters, brown bag suppers, and herbal teas, we built a sanctuary for women. It came in two forms. The more obvious was a week of seminars that we hosted on campus titled "Make Room for Paradox." That series brought the private observations and concerns of specific women to the public so that they could learn. The more subtle is the more powerful. "Make Room for Paradox" made connections for women participants who had not considered themselves in the context of shared women's experiences. It gave these women an opportunity to see the relevance of women's concerns for their own lives. it served as an awakening for them.
It takes a lot of time and personal giving to make a difference. You make a difference in the world with casual conversations, comfortable clothes, and building relationships. It helps to bring along an extra donut.